The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Davis Chamber Choir
Spring Concert - June 3, 2017
by JR Keith
I had heard some buzz about the Davis Chamber Choir (DCC), so I peeked at a concert review of their Evensong concert from March 2016. I found it intriguing that the reviewer used words such as “accomplished,” “disciplined,” and “brilliant” and phrases like “insanely difficult” and “exquisite dissonance” to convey his experience that evening. Now having heard the DCC Spring Concert, I must admit: I concur! About 90% of their concert was sung captivatingly a cappella in 6-8+ part harmony, mostly performed from memory. The concert program contains a wealth of information — linked here.
It was 8:00 p.m. as warm applause welcomed the chorus to their places onstage in the comfortable sanctuary of the Davis Community Church. A hush fell over the room as Jake Runestad’s worshipful “Alleluia” began. This joyful, rhythmic a cappella anthem lifted my spirit. I picked up my pen and wrote, “the unity on this stage is extremely precise, blending perfectly.” I delighted in the high soprano martellato at the ends of some dazzling runs. The riveting, echoing alleluias had “crescendos and decrescendos that melted like butter,” as I jotted in my notebook. At moments during this first song, I blinked — hard — while listening to this double-dozen-voiced choir... responding as a single finely tuned instrument played by a virtuoso — a living manifestation of the vox humana organ stop. Subtle clapping by the performers added a nuance of celebration, further amplifying the experience for their audience. And I wrote, “the baritones and bases form a rock-solid foundation onto which every voice can build.” DCC, I'm intrigued!
Daniel Elder's compelling human-song, “The Heart's Reflection,” began with a dissonant, Gregorian chant-like rumble from the basses, with other voices building harmonic interludes toward a soli-sectional of high voices. “Waves of effervescence... flutters of the heart... organic calm interspersed with moments of discord and fierce introspection” were my notes for this song. DCC interpreted this stalwart SSAATTBB composition majestically. My blood pressure lowered as random thoughts of the day vanished. At the end of this six-minute voyage, I was awestruck from the luxurious ride.
DCC then bewitched its audience with Tomas Luis de Victoria's “O Crux Ave.” This composition is based on the 6th verse from a Latin hymn, “Vexilla Regis” (“The Royal Banner”), first performed on November 19, 569. The emotive progressions and canticle-in-the-round moments took me back to my church days singing various cantatas between Palm Sunday and Easter. DCC created a spiritual, high-brow-Episcopal quality that helped me to envision the beaten Christ burdened upon the cross. The sopranos cried as the lamenting, lower voices were “echoing... anticipating... reflecting upon Golgotha's hill... each note leaning toward the ultimate sorrow of such a sacrifice.” I continued writing, “DCC struck many spiritual chords in this audience with this stirring hymn.”
For the next four selections, DCC broke into smaller ensembles. First was an audience favorite, the barbershop standard, Les Applegate's “Goodbye, My Coney Island Baby.” This quartet of guys included a “pinch hitter”: illness had forced DCC to dip into their ample, vocal pool-of-talent. The pinch hitter stepped up with music in hand, and performed without a hiccup. “Coney” is a difficult piece... I continued in my notes “having several, drawn-out ritards with dramatic returns to a tempo; bits of theatrical flare; and amazing zingers for the audience.” Thank you for keeping this number in the show!
Next was another audience favorite by Ben Oakland, Kirby Shaw's adaptation of “Java Jive!” The fantastic soloists crooned beautifully as did the rest of the ensemble, with balanced, excellent chromatic jazz licks. I appreciated the flashy vocals, and thick, rich chords during this demanding arrangement, originated by the Manhattan Transfer: coffee never sounded so cool!
Unfortunately, the next entry on the program, “Two Spirituals” fell victim to illness. Based on the description, I can imagine that DCC’s artistry would have really shined here! In its place, “Agnus Dei” was brought forward from the second half of the concert. William Byrd's “Lamb of God” movement from The Mass for Three Voices has intricate, gorgeous melodies overlapping one another, creating magnificent, dense polyphony and scintillating dissonances with (continuing from my notes) “entrancing, exotic waves of sweet, alluring chords that would draw anyone out of bed and into church.” The affirming responses of the audience confirmed that this sextet had us right where they wanted us — comfortably, lovingly entertained.
The last small group song before intermission was the traditional spiritual, “Bring Me Little Water, Sylvie” arranged by Moira Smiley. The quartet of gleeful faces on that stage lit up the room as they began a sort of body percussion with light foot stomps, claps, chest slaps, and thigh taps. With my eyes shut, I silently sang along — this is one of my favorite spirituals. There were moments where the sound enveloped us with intense, lush reverberation. To me, it had a bell-like quality; there was magic in this piece. The exquisitely covered high tones and sumptuous blend were divine! The audience seemed to be in awe, or perhaps mesmerized, as there was a notable pause before applause after the flawless, final chord faded.
Vince Peterson's arrangement of Erika Lloyd's masterful, “Cells Planets” dripped with artistry. Sharing directly from my notes: “The S's and F's were essentially perfect — as if one person enunciated the consonants while the other 23 of them sounded the vowels. I am awestruck by such precise musicianship! Early on there was a pianissimo section where it met a sforzando with the word “shine” — SIMPLY WOW! Ashley Arias' soprano voice was that of a delicate thread pulled through an harmonic wall that gently sat atop the musical tapestry of “do’s” and “loo’s” from the rest of the chorus... and as the baritone, Sean Ang, joined, another colorful thread was added to the mix ... ebbing and flowing into the “dop-dop's.” I glanced around at the audience. Faces reflected expressions of enchantment, transcendence, and enthrallment.” I've heard Chanticleer perform a version of this work as arranged specifically for them. I appreciated DCC's interpretation of Lloyd's song maybe a smidgen more. I was at perfect peace when it was over. There were even tears and sniffles from the audience. Peaceful serenity filled the sanctuary. The soloists mesmerized us, casting a spell of introspection. I asked my partner, “Isn't that what music is supposed to do — meet us where we are and cleanse?” I needed this performance; it refreshed my parched soul.
At intermission, I was able to pull myself together and briefly introduce myself to conductor Bailey Cooke. This young gentleman has the unique, charismatic appeal and intuition of a gospel minister; the whimsy and intelligence of a classy comedian; and the extemporaneous skills of a sportscaster. His ability to create a warm connection between stage and patron was compelling. Cooke impressed us with notes he gave off-the-cuff during segues between many of the songs — tidbits of historical, fun facts about the program and humorous insights of the choristers. Laughter, agreeing nods, and “ah's” indicated the high level of connection this affable, artistic director was able to establish with the audience. Augmenting Cooke’s contributions were assistant musical conductors Kelly Chang and Steven Ilagan (both leaving for greener pastures after this concert); all 3 directors took turns singing, directing and accompanying.
After intermission, the women of DCC took to the stage and impressed us with the Mongolian song “八駿贊” (“Praise the Eight Steeds”) by Se Enkhbayar. To me, it seemed clear at this point of the concert, that DCC has a level of confidence not common among choruses in their age-bracket. They were having fun and enjoying themselves immensely. “八駿贊” was the most difficult of all the songs from my perspective. Mongolian phonetic structure uses parts of the mouth that Germanic, Romance, and Latinate language speakers simply don't use. Also, there were dozens of measures where the ladies sang monosyllabic runs, crazy chords, and dissonant melody progressions. This strenuous song shone a spotlight on the spectacular range and talent of DCC.
DCC's men stood onstage next, and shared a rendition of Ireland's “Londonderry Air” or as it’s familiarly known, “Danny Boy.” The program states, “This arrangement conflates choral singing, vocal bagpipes, and piano in a beautiful fusion.” The guys used an opened- and closed-mouth, difficult nasal technique so well that their mock-pipes sounded like the real things passing by on St. Patrick's Day! Conductor Cooke was marvelous as their pianist. Kevin Memley arranged this version — and it’s now my favorite take on this traditional Irish ballad.
The sparkler of the evening, was Sia's hit, “Chandelier” as arranged by Kyle McGehee. Read the program notes — they were spot on! This high-octane octet of DCC did hit a small rough patch during the song, but it was barely noticeable. I wrote, “DCC's ability to self-correct during wobbled moments of a cappella is impeccable — to have found pitch and harmony, step back into tempo, and recover when something goes slightly awry — especially considering the high-caliber, densely inked scores they tackle — is beyond comparison.” I teared up on this one, as well. They make it seem so easy, yet “I was sitting on the edge of my seat, hoping, praying... then there it was —like a battery had been placed back into the clock or the strum of the guitar after having just been tuned — the song stood out as another favorite,” I happily observed.
I was looking forward to what DCC was going to do with “Ride On, King Jesus” a traditional spiritual arranged by Stacey V. Gibbs, and I was not disappointed. I scribbled down, “Fanciful bursts of smiles... loved the knee-slapping gospel, down-home flavor with dramatic ritards and quickened tempos, all with amazing enunciation despite jaw-droppingly rapid lyrics. There seemed to be a bit of everything: lilting sopranos, lively altos, low-voiced Gregorian-esque chanting, ethereal descants... it was over way too soon.”
Next up was Eric Whitacre's “A Boy and a Girl.” This full-chorus exhibition was luscious. Intense resonance prompted me to note that “this group may be peerless within a 500-mile radius... their technique is commensurate with their artistry... the minute details of unified consonant/mouth position with teeth, tongue, lips AND vowel placement made this song a highlight for me, and without this subtle refinement of skills and purpose, this piece would not have had the audience impact that it clearly did... brought to another level by the powerhouse bass section. Again, every consonant was magical... pure artistry among 12 men and 13 women performers.” “A Boy and a Girl” was insanely difficult to sing; the most intense song of the evening — demanding extreme breath and pitch control. The phrasing was extraordinary.
I remember closing my eyes during “Thoughts on the Moon” by Arden Skoglund. I could feel the bending of sound waves, bringing to mind visions of trajectory plots in physics books, or an M.C. Escher lithograph, as each part crescendoed and decrescendoed… intersecting, crossing through each other... handing over and sharing melody till the deep bass finale. I felt myself transported to the moon for some brief, chilling moments by the delightful, intense harmonies!
The dramatic conclusion to the evening was dedicated to the seniors who were graduating from UC Davis. “Unclouded Day,” arranged by Shawn Kirchner, was thrilling and earned uproarious applause, whistles, and “bravos” from the audience. My partner and I are considering adding DCC to our list of choruses we want to help in any way we can; this group of artists deserves support from all over! I'm a lucky guy to be writing for the Sacramento Choral Calendar... I am blessed beyond measure to experience and write about amazing choirs like the Davis Chamber Choir!
JR Keith has worn a variety of hats: director, soloist, small and large ensemble member, tenor/baritone, and event planner of choruses from Texas to California, such as FBC Frisco, TX; CCCC Jazz Choir; DBU Chorus; several mission/worship teams; Sanctuary 101; Collin County Community Choir; Turtle Creek Chorale; Dallas Symphony Chorus; Amador Choraliers; and the Sacramento Gay Men’s Chorus.